Interview: Paul Robertson - Lust for Change

Self-taught curator Paul Robertson speaks candidly about public funding and how loud printing presses have ruined openings for him

Article by Adam Benmakhlouf | 01 Sep 2015

After a spell as an expert on the ring dove, followed by a stint as Labour Party communications expert/entrepreneur, Paul Robertson’s latest incarnation has seen him set himself up 12 miles south of Summerhall, the venue he acrimoniously departed last year after spending some years curating a logic-defying 180 shows annually. In an old school in the village Temple, he’s set up his new exhibition space, Lust and the Apple.

That Robertson stayed in Edinburgh was by no means a foregone conclusion. His exit from Summerhall provided some rare scandal and rumour on the Scottish art scene, and he’s outspoken about what he perceives to be the differences between the contemporary art audiences of Glasgow, compared to Edinburgh. “What you have in Edinburgh is people that only really understand representative art. 'Ah that’s nice, it looks like a bit of a chocolate box,'” he says, not uncontroversially. 

He regards Lust and the Apple as an important moment of intervention. “Edinburgh needs more contemporary art galleries. It’s a circular thing, there’s got to be a market for them. I come along and do this out of my own pocket.”

Taking a walk around the garden at the back of Lust and the Apple, Robertson points out the work of Danish artist duo Put Put. Inside a small greenhouse, pots are filled with soil and various green plastic tat. With some skill, Put Put have placed a set of anal beads so that they’re easily overlooked. “I had to buy this greenhouse for 300 quid,” Robertson explains. “And the work’s for sale. But if it doesn’t sell, it’ll sit here and people can see it for a while. Look … If you’ve got to find the money, you’ll find it somewhere. Even if I have to prostitute myself on Leith on a Friday night.”

He’s probably kidding, but leasing himself out for the night could be preferable to public funding for Robertson. “I’ve always been committed to doing it myself,” he begins, uncontroversially enough. He goes on: “It seems to me that if you create a generation of artists that are reliant on grants then you are actually doing no-one a service. I know what I’m about to say is going to make me sound like a Tory." He continues – ironically enough, given his high volume curation record – "There are too many artists. We live in a world where we churn out so many people from art schools. They cannot all possibly be full-time artists.” While accepting “everyone’s got to have a job,” he doesn’t think it’s a bad thing for the market to decide. In short, he says, “I can’t see any other system that works. If you’re any good, you will probably survive. You might not be Damien Hirst, though.”

When it comes to the full-time artists working now, Robertson anonymises his complaints about professional “subsidy junkies.” By way of contrast, he cites Carolee Schneeman, an artist he collects and for whom he facilitated an exhibition in 2012. Even if the conditions weren’t right, “in the 1960s, if you were an artist you did it anyway. People like Schneeman did all that amazing work, breaking down barriers against female artists, about sexuality and female art. Doing these performances that she didn’t make any money from.”

"If you create a generation of artists that are reliant on grants then you are doing no-one a service" – Paul Robertson

Yet, as much as Robertson is concerned with sounding right-wing, there’s not much separating his ideas from the usual tropes (specifically in relation to the Glasgow Miracle narrative) of the DIY ethic. Lust and the Apple is in the enviable position of having Robertson’s network that extends to artists like Gregor Schneider and Lawrence Weiner, but without the bureaucratic hems of a large public institution. Robertson addresses the publicly funded arts organisations and events when he makes clear that it should come with the proviso that invigilators are paid – something he insisted upon, during his time in Summerhall.

Robertson doesn’t ask to go “off the record”, except from respect for the privacy of others. There’s no sense of professional or careerist anxiety. His curatorial practice is defined by a number of well-timed collecting decisions, rather than membership of the arts community. “I don’t need to make friends. It’s curious, I don’t really feel at home in other people’s openings. I don’t know half the people. I’m not part of the Edinburgh art scene.” His unlikely professional background has made it physically difficult for him to participate in the usual gatherings. While earning the seed money for his art collecting career as a pamphlet printer, the loud machinery has made it difficult for him to hear in crowded rooms. “Openings are hell for me.”

As much as Robertson separates himself from a lot of the art communities, he’s aimed to align himself with the younger emerging artists. So far this year, he’s exhibited a fair chunk of the GSA MFA 2015 cohort, as well as working with Edinburgh’s Kevin Harman and Rachel Maclean. “Look, I’m 57. I spend my time with people who are half my age mostly. That might just be a sad old man’s reaction to getting old and nearly dying [Robertson suffered a triple bypass last year] but I find people who have ideas, energy and enthusiasm vastly more interesting than someone who wants to talk small talk over a good red wine.”

Robertson’s role as curator is complicated by the inclusion of his own work in Lust and the Apple. Mostly, the other artists are emerging, fairly inexperienced artists, but he’s not interested in indulging his curatorial seniority. “If you see the curation more than the artist, really there’s something wrong. Really that’s the curator wanting to be the artist, let’s not pretend.” While he makes clear that he thinks of himself artistically as “really nowhere near” those he exhibits, one of his works stands at the front entrance. It’s a large scale version of True Detective’s little twig sculpture Devil’s Nest. Currently, Roberston is also exhibiting his Periodic Table of Bowie as part of a V&A travelling exhibition. “I’m not an idiot,” he adds. “I know that people are mostly interested in it because it’s David Bowie. But I think it’s still a valid artwork.”

Now exhibiting his own work, buying the work of young Scottish artists and beginning to have one eye on a more consistent schedule of international exhibitions, Robertson’s set to continue in his odd role as outsider curator. “I’ve had a life when I’ve been pretty peripatetic. Maybe it’s just a desperate attempt to stay young. Some people just give up. I might just keel over and die. I’ve already had a shot at that.”

Current exhibition ends 18 Oct